Namma, in Kannada, translates to ‘our’. Prefix namma to anything or anyone, and it instantly becomes endearing. Namma Krupakar-Senani – the duo synonymous with wild dogs, wildlife and a wild life. A wild mongoose runs in through their front door and jumps out of one of the windows; when they reach for something in their attic, they are wary of young Russell’s Vipers slithering around; or on a random night, a notorious brigand might just show up at their doorstep!
The first Asians to win the prestigious Green Oscar in open section, Animal Behaviour (for their film, ‘The Pack’, on dholes), they are recognized far and wide, with awards including the Karnataka Rajyotsava and the Karnataka Sahitya Academy awards. They educate and regale their audiences via local, national and international print and visual media. We are always in awe in their company – so experienced, and yet so humble.
Meet the proud sons of Karnataka, namma Krupakar B S and Senani Hegde.
Krupakar, with a background in business administration and Senani, a civil engineering graduate, are Asia’s first winners of the Green Oscar (for The Pack). How did this transition happen?
I worked as a journalist and Senani, as a structural engineer, but our passion for wildlife goes back to our childhood. Senani’s house always had the required ambience to instil a deep interest in natural history in us.
His mother, who is now ninety, would suddenly ask, “Why hasn’t the warbler arrived yet? It has been inconsistent only for the last four years. Otherwise, every year it would be here in our garden in the first week of November. There must be something wrong somewhere..”, keeping track of the migratory Blyth’s Reed Warbler.
We would spend our holidays exploring the forests of the Western Ghats.
One fine day, we decided to give up our jobs to pursue our dreams. We spent many years in Mudumalai, wandering around the forests, studying and photographing birds. Here, we were exposed to a true tropical ecosystem, forest skills through the local tribals, and the science of nature through scientists. This eventually opened up the world of elephants and wild dogs to us. We did not go there with the intention of observing those mammals, but we just took the paths that seemed most interesting.
Can you tell us more about your stay in Mudumalai?
We were at Upper Kargudi in Mudumalai. In the middle of the forest, the (forest) department had an old British Bungalow, from the days of World War II. This building had been given to scientists from BNHS who were studying different aspects of elephant ecology, like ranging, foraging, behaviour and conflict. It is here that we were also given the opportunity to stay. This way, fortunately, we got associated with some of the finest field trackers, biologists and behaviour scientists since the beginning. Consequently, our passion for wildlife was always backed by scientific reading, reasoning and vision.
Who was working there at the time?
Young scientists like Ajay Desai, Sivaganesan, Ramesh and Hemant Datye were guided by J.C. Daniel and Dr. Krishnamurthy V – stalwarts of Indian wildlife science. The house itself was like a natural history library for us! Back then, unlike today, access to scientific findings and information was not easy. Many supremely talented and renowned scientists would visit there often, like Hamilton, or writers like Douglas Chadwick. Interacting with all these people expanded our knowledge and shaped our attitude. We learnt to view issues more scientifically than emotionally.
Who was your biggest influence? Who has inspired you the most in natural history and film-making?
We have great respect for the works of Darwin and Wallace, as we understand that nothing makes sense in natural science if ‘the evolution of species’ is kept out of context. It is phenomenal that these brilliant minds came up with such extraordinary thoughts 150 years ago, changing the way the world thinks about life itself.
In wildlife filmmaking, we admire Hugh Miles, one of the finest storytellers in the history of wildlife filmmaking. For us, he is also the best wildlife cameraman, of our era at least. He would take big financial risks doing films his way. Normally, producers and commissioners would want to finish the production part of the film within 50-75 days, but it is difficult to do a serious and intimate wildlife film in such a short duration. Also, it is common to see the researcher, script writer and the cameramen working separately. But Hugh Miles would be in the field, involving himself in every aspect of his films. That is one of the reasons his films would be special and intimate. Sometimes, his films also reflect his social conscience and responsibilities. He was driven by passion and nothing else.
What are your views on nature photography and filming?
If your aim is only to achieve the goal and you do not enjoy the path, this field is not for you. If you are not passionate, the journey can become laborious and strenuous. If you cannot go beyond the picture and see the story, you will end up capturing the image alone, without its soul or essence.
Wildlife filmmaking is a different game altogether. To be a good filmmaker and cameraman of international standards, you need to have a proper understanding of wildlife science. Also, it is essential to know your subject/ecosystem in depth, anticipate the sequences, carefully pick your stories on the spot and foresee the unravelling of the story in advance. Equally important is the ability to craft the ambience and build atmosphere through shots, apart from having the usual film making skills like storytelling, knowledge of light, composition, colours etc.
We believe that wildlife filmmaking should be driven first by passion and only then can it be a profession. Many people treat it as just any other profession, with the goal of producing a set number of films, or for money and fame. We are never attracted to this type of approach. We do our research, and we take our time to tell a passionate and intimate story.
We also react spontaneously to our social responsibilities and sometimes get deviated. It is fine, as we are part of a society and it becomes important to react to rights and wrongs or injustice or discrimination in the society. We have to first learn to be human, the rest will follow.
What has been one of the most memorable moments from the days you spent watching birds?
In Mudumalai, we worked on birds for probably 4-5 years. We spent a lot of time trying to understand the social system in White-headed Babblers – why groups split, why some individuals leave, who will leave, and so on. Though we spent a lot of time with them, we hardly photographed them. In wildlife science, as you spend more time in the field, read more scientific papers and books, you will end up with more questions than answers. This is what keeps us going, making our life in the forest more intriguing.
The social system of White-headed Babblers is quite complex. We would observe many nests every year and brood parasitism was of special interest to us. The Common Hawk-cuckoo or Brain-fever Bird was the main brood parasite, laying eggs in the nests of White-headed Babblers. With our detailed observations, we were able to distinguish between the host’s eggs and those of the parasite. This was important for us, to understand the strategies that the parasites and the hosts use to counter each other. We also wanted to know the relation between the cuckoo chick and its actual parents, foster parents and nest-mates. Sometimes we would find 7 or 8 eggs in the nest. Initially, we thought that different parasites must have laid eggs in confusion. But after many years of extensive studies of Dr. Amotz Zahavi’s scientific findings, we realised that we need to thoroughly understand structure and dynamics of babbler societies to appreciate even small incidents like these. In the long run, these studies also helped us understand dholes better.
World renowned wildlife ecologist of today, Ajay Desai, who was a young researcher back then, was also seeking answers to brood parasitic behaviour. We once took him along and showed him an instance when the parent cuckoo arrived, sat barely five feet above the nest, and called. The chick responded! The actual parent doesn’t feed the chick, but communicates!
Such instances can open up umpteen numbers of questions to a scientist, and seeking the answers can be a life’s mission. Dr. Zahavi and his students must have studied babblers in Israel for the last 60 years now, and they’re not finished yet!
Why did you choose to work with wild dogs?
Studying and understanding the complexities of social animals has always fascinated us. Studying babblers had begun to kindle in us an interest in dholes, as they are also wild social animals in the same ecosystem. These wild dogs have always been the underdogs of the forest. Their kills were stolen, and they were bounty-hunted by humans. Over the years, all these factors had influenced our view of them, and we had developed a soft corner for them. This led us to make a film that explores the forest through their eyes.
A lot of reading and research must have gone into the making of the film.
Senani is a voracious reader of natural science. When we start work on a project, we would spend many months reading. If our subject was a social animal, then we would read scientific papers on the behaviour of any social animal, be it the Naked Mole Rat, or African Wild Dogs, or babblers from Israel; all this would come in handy to understand our subject better. In addition to this, we have had the privilege of having friends who would send us references to reading material, as soon as they learn what we were about to embark upon.
What challenges did you face while studying and filming The Pack and Walking with Wolves?
We came to Bandipur to study wild dogs. It was an open, dry deciduous forest and visibility was better than in Mudumalai, but wild dogs were very shy and we would hardly see them. Even after observing them for nearly a year, a slight movement at a distance of 300m would make them move away. It was impossible!
In social animals like dholes, several factors affect their group size. Many individuals leave natal packs every year, try to find a partner, establish their own territory and reproduce. This is a very difficult period in the life of a dhole because they co-exist with other predators that are much bigger than them. It is extremely difficult for them to survive and successfully reproduce without the backing of a pack.
The first challenge is to predict who is going to leave the pack, why, when and with whom. This compels you to understand the dynamics of the pack at a very different level. It becomes necessary to know every individual in the pack, their hierarchy and their exact biological relation with the other dogs.
Slowly, as you get to know the pack members, you start identifying the individuals and they start developing into characters. Then you start understanding the social relations between the individuals and even the internal politics! It takes many years to understand this, and you should be extremely careful to not get carried away and deviate from scientific truths and facts.
In our film Walking with Wolves, one of our biggest issues was tracking the wolves. While filming wild dogs, we had learnt to read other forms of communication in the forest which would lead us to the wild dogs. These kind of indirect signs did not work for us in with wolves in the beginning of our study, because we were not familiar with the area and the human habitat where they were found. Also, the footprints of wolves and feral dogs are very similar. In north Karnataka, there is such an abundance of feral dogs, it is scary. In this sea of footprints, to differentiate a wolf’s footprint from that of a dog’s turned out to be a mighty difficult task.
During our initial rounds of gathering information, people would say wolves are in plenty. But nobody had observed them methodically to give us more clues. Fortunately, our friend Vallabha Chandra, a keen conservationist with good knowledge of the area and the right contacts, guided us. Villagers would say that there was one wolf in every village. How can wolves survive as a pack with a distribution of one wolf per village? Natural prey density in those areas is very thin. The wolves mostly survive by “stealing” prey. But stealing in a group gets a bit too dangerous. For example, the possibility of a group of six thieves being spotted is higher than spotting a thief who works alone. So, even if the wolves are in a pack, they scatter, and move around alone in different directions and distances. When pups come out of the den, the mother does not keep all of them with her. That’s the most interesting aspect. She manages by handing over one pup to each adult member of the pack, and all of them regroup late in the night. We have not been able to establish this in our film, as we could not get sufficient footage of this behaviour.
There was another roadblock in your study of wild dogs – you were kidnapped by Veerappan. We strongly recommend our readers to pick up a copy of your Kannada book ‘Sereyalli kaLeda 14 dinagalu’ or its English translation, ‘Birds, beasts and bandits’, to get the entire story. But what was it that you learnt in the forest during those days?
It was interesting to observe a person who is caught in a state of mind such as Veerappan’s. A man who has killed several people, including policemen, goes to bed at 10 PM, wakes up at 6 AM in the morning, having had a completely undisturbed sleep! We maintained our calm, as we had nothing to lose. We treated our kidnappers as our friends, diluting the tension, figuring out different ways of convincing them to release us.
Your line of work is intense and physically demanding. What is the secret of your physical fitness?
Senani and I studied in the same school, we became friends while playing cricket together. Our families would instruct us to go outdoors, play and get back by around 7 PM. That was a great thing, because it wasn’t just a physical activity, we got to mingle with kids apart from our own classmates. Ever since then, outdoor games are dear to us. You may do a bit of gardening, or play a game, anything where you can exercise without even realizing it.
You mentioned earlier about having a social conscience, which is very strong in both of you. You have brought about an astronomical change by introducing LPG cylinders into the homes of the local villagers, whose primary fuel was firewood. What is the background behind Namma Sangha?
When we began exploring forests, a long time ago, we had to pass through Bandipur to reach Mudumalai. We were aware of people who would gather firewood to sell in Gundlupet, on the main road. It was their profession. RFOs would block the road, burn the stock they gathered, and would instruct them not to go into the forest anymore. The sellers would then take revenge by damaging the RFOs’ vehicles.
Policing is not the best solution. If stealing stops, then policing itself is not necessary, isn’t it? You need to think positively and suggest alternatives. We reviewed maps and tried to understand how many thousands of people lived there. You can’t work in a 10m x 12m area in a large forest of 1300 km2; your contribution will not be significant enough to solve the problem.
When we set out to do this, many people in the scientific community and in NGOs asked us why we wanted to get into this, as it would eat into our time and money, and ruin our career. We did it anyway because we liked to do it. Even if gathering firewood didn’t stop as a profession, introducing LPG would at least help the women who cooked – they would get some relief from inhaling smoke. It was satisfactory for us if it helped even in a small way.
When we look back at how it worked, we can say that execution of such initiatives is a lot tougher than finances. For it to work, you need some credibility in the society. The public responded spontaneously. It gives us immense satisfaction, not because it is a big project, but because it worked so seamlessly. Almost 36,000 families have benefitted from Namma Sangha.
How can anyone help or contribute towards Namma Sangha?
We need to distribute LPG cylinders in remote areas where roads are not motorable. The small vehicles that we employ don’t last long on such roads. They may last for a maximum of 2 years. That’s our only problem. We need vehicles. If someone donates 3 – 4 vehicles to Namma Sangha, we are good to go for the next five years. We will display the donor’s name on the vehicle.
You also help with employment and education for the local people …
All the employees of Namma Sangha are local people. Our chartered accountant and lawyers work for free. We have educated many local kids, but we haven’t scaled it, because we haven’t been able to generate such large funds.
We select some bright kids living in poor conditions and help them, mainly by funding their education. Recently, one of the girls we helped completed her engineering course and is now employed by a German company in Bangalore. Her father was a forest watcher who was an alcoholic.
What is your latest project?
We are working on the Snow Leopard now. We haven’t been able to get a pattern there, yet. We need to establish that pattern, and will begin once we get that.
We hadn’t imagined that Walking with Wolves would be possible, because we must ‘see’ the story first. It cannot be just a story, it must be backed up scientifically, make literary sense, and must hold for an international audience. It must appeal to all fields. When you look at all these aspects, the issues are many. The first hurdle is to understand the area, which includes the character, its role, and its life. We will work on this for another year and see how it goes.
For our readers, Krupakar-Senani are writing a bi-weekly column titled “Avyakta Bharata” in the Sunday edition of the Kannada daily, “Prajavani”.